Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2016

True Ports hail from the Douro valley in northern Portugal, and have done so for over three hundred years. The region’s predominant soil is schist, composed of various medium-grained to coarse-grained metamorphic rocks with laminated, often flaky parallel layers of micaceous minerals.  The low annual rainfall makes this probably one of the driest regions of the world where grapes are grown without irrigation. This terroir results in very low-yielding vineyards, with vines bearing only a very few small bunches of full-flavored grapes whose thick skins protect them from dehydration.

Port is a fortified wine. Fortification is the addition of brandy or a neutral spirit to wine in order to boost the alcohol content. Fortified wines are often sweet, because the alcohol kills the yeast before fermentation completely runs its course, leaving residual sugar. This accounts for Port’s characteristic rich, luscious style and also contributes to the wine’s considerable ageing potential. Fortification also stabilizes the wine, a definite benefit for a product destined for the long sea voyage from Portugal to England, the first large market for it.

In 1798 Bruno da Silva, a Portuguese merchant from Oporto, traveled to London, where he imported wine from his native country, reversing the route of English traders to Portugal. He married an Englishwoman, was rapidly assimilated into London society, and built a reputation for his wines. When the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars in 1803 put his business in jeopardy, da Silva applied for ‘Letters of Marque’ (a Royal Assent to equip a merchant ship with guns) to secure safe passage of his Port from Oporto to England. His became the only Port company to transport its wines in its own armed fleet, a distinct competitive advantage.

Upon his death, the business passed to da Silva’s son John, who in 1862 partnered with Frederick William Cosens. Together with John’s son, Edward, the trio became the active partners in Silva & Cosens. Like his grandfather, Edward da Silva was also a shrewd businessman, and the company continued to prosper. Edward became a highly respected figure in the London wine trade, and was one of the founders of the Wine Trade Benevolent Society, (renamed The Drinks Trust in  2020) the leading British wine trade charity.

George Acheson Warre, whose well-known family had been involved in the Port trade since its earliest years, joined Silva & Cosens as partner in 1868. In 1877, the firm merged with another leading Port company, Dow & Co, whose senior partner was James Ramsay Dow.  Although smaller than Silva & Cosens, Dow & Co had become a very highly regarded Port producer with a particularly fine reputation for its vintage Ports, and when the two companies merged, it was decided to adopt Dow’s as the brand name.

The Vineyards

The Douro

Quinta do Bomfim has provided the main source for Dow’s products since it was acquired in 1896. The property is a classic ‘river quinta (estate)’ with many natural advantages: it is south-facing, ensuring ample exposure to the sun; its stony schist soil affords excellent drainage, allowing water to reach the vines’ deep roots; the annual rainfall is near perfect at 31 inches (15 year annual average); the altitude ranges from 394 to 1,115 feet above sea level, accommodating both gentle gradients lower down and progressively steeper slopes higher up the valley side. A further advantage is the consistent climate.

The principal grape varieties planted are: Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz and old mixed vines. Two-thirds of the vineyard is now over 20 years old, while one third is between 30 to 40 years old.

Another classic river quinta, Senhora da Ribeira is located 15 miles upriver from Quinta do Bomfim. Senhora da Ribeira is set in the remote, hot, and dry Douro Superior and commands a north bank position, overlooking a broad sweep of the Douro. The quinta was built close to an ancient and strategic river crossing, guarded by two 12th century hilltop castles on either side of the Douro. Travelers would pause here to pray for a safe river passage and onward journey at a small chapel dedicated to the ‘Lady of the River’ (literally: Senhora da Ribeira).

The quinta’s high proportion of old vines (45% are over 25 years old) is of critical importance. The old vines are very low-yielding, producing on average less than two pounds of grapes each, giving intense and concentrated musts. As with Bomfim, the consistency of the climate plays a key role, although the rainfall is only about half of that experienced at Bomfim: 18 inches is the 10 year average.

The Symingtons

Andrew James Symington, a Scotsman, travelled to Oporto in 1882 at the age of 18 to work for the Grahams (if you are familiar with Ports, you should be spotting a trend here), another Scottish family long established in Portugal. Young and ambitious, he soon left to work on his own in the Port trade, where he gradually built up a reputation as an expert taster.  By 1905 he had become a partner in Warre & Co, the first British Port company established in Portugal, and in a few years he became the company’s sole owner.

Curiously, at this time the Warre family, who were the principal owners of Dow’s, had no remaining interest in the company that bore its name. In 1912, Dow’s senior partner, George A. Warre decided to return to England and invited Symington to manage the Douro Valley vineyards of Dow, its lodges (wineries) and assets in Gaia. In the same year, a share swap took place whereby Symington took a 30% stake in Dow’s and Warre took, in return, shares in Warre & Co. The successful partnership between the Symingtons as Port producers in the Douro and Gaia and the Warre’s in London looking after sales lasted for half a century until 1961 when the Symingtons finally became the sole owners of Dow’s.

With their extensive vineyard holdings and Port brands, including Dow’s, Grahams, Warre’s, and Cockburn’s, the Symingtons are often described as ruling over a “Port empire.” In addition to their Port holdings, Symington owns several brands of Douro DOC wines.

Dow’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2016

The Portugese only declare Port vintages in years which they deem worthy.  In the 21st century, these have been 2003, 2007, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, a rather more frequent pace than in the 20th century.  These “Vintage Ports” are the top-tier offerings.  “Late Bottled Vintage Ports” are made from grapes of a single vintage, in this case 2016, but of second-tier quality fruit, although they can still be quite good.   

As indeed this one is.  This wine spent four to six years in oak, as all Late Vintage Ports do.  Dark purple in color, it offers subtle aromas of raisin, prune, and baking spice.  The rich mouthfeel carries flavors of ripe berries, particularly blackberry, and chocolate, and a well-balanced and restrained sweetness.

Pour this wine in a wine glass at room temperature, or slightly chilled in warm weather to make it more refreshing.  It works as both an aperitif and after-dinner drink. It does not need to be decanted, is ready to drink on release, and should be consumed within four to six weeks of opening. The ABV is: 20%.

I have also recently reviewed another widely-available and similarly-priced Port from the Symington portfolio, Cockburn’s Special Reserve.  While I enjoyed both, my nod goes to the Dow’s, with its less peppery, more balanced classic Port character.

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Cockburn’s No. 1 Special Reserve Port

True Ports hail from the Douro valley in Northern Portugal, and have done so for over three hundred years. The region’s predominant soil is schist, composed of various medium-grained to coarse-grained metamorphic rocks with laminated, often flaky parallel layers of micaceous minerals.  The low annual rainfall makes this probably one of the driest regions of the world where grapes are grown without irrigation. This terroir results in very low-yielding vineyards, with vines bearing only a very few small bunches of full-flavored grapes whose thick skins protect them from dehydration.

Cockburn’s (CO-burns, not COCK-burns) is perhaps the best-known name in Port, thanks to Cockburn’s Special Reserve.  Certainly, in the first half of the last century Cockburn vintage ports were widely regarded as the finest in the world.

Robert Cockburn was a Scottish soldier who served in Portugal during the Peninsular War, and thereby was exposed to Port wines. In 1815, Robert and his brother John, who originally were wine merchants in Leith, Scotland, decided to get into the Port business. Looking for better fruit than what was available at the traditional merchant’s fair in Porto, they ventured up the Douro river and bought the  best grapes they could find directly from farmers there. Over time, the Cockburns were joined by the Wauchope, Smithes, Teage, and Cobb families as partners. Together, they built a reputation for fine Vintage Port.  For most of the 20th century, Cockburn’s was the name in Port — famous (some would say infamous) for deferring on vintages that others declared, and fetching prices 10 to 15% above the going rate of their Oporto competitors.

Cockburn’s was one of the first companies to plant vineyards in the remote Douro Superior,  a region once considered out of bounds for respectable producers, but which became known as Cockburn’s Country.  It was also instrumental in resurrecting the now iconic Touriga Nacional grape variety from obscurity, largely due to the efforts of John Henry Smithes, Cockburn’s winemaker and the “Cowboy of the Douro.”

The Cockburn and Smithes families sold the business in 1963 to Showerings of England, producers of Babycham (a low-alcohol sparking cider made from fermented pear juice), who had at about the same time taken over Harveys of Bristol. Showerings decided they needed a Port to complement the branded Sherry that was then their cash cow, Harveys Bristol Cream. Christened “Special Reserve,” it revolutionized the Port trade in 1969, creating a whole new category between Ruby Port and Vintage Port.  (It is more substantial than a Ruby, but less so than a Vintage.)

The brand has a tradition of humorous marketing, with many people still remembering the iconic print and TV ads from the ’70s and ’80s. That same spirit continues today, reflected in recent “Pronounce Responsibly” advertising.

Over time, the Cockburn’s portfolio passed through a number of owners. At some point, Showerings became part of Allied Domecq until that operation was taken over by Pernod Ricard in 2005, who promptly sold Cockburn’s and some other brands to the Fortune Brands holding company, the parent company of Beam Global, the company best known for its bourbon. Predictably, Beam’s knowledge of and interest in fortified wines was minimal at best, so Beam quickly (and wisely) contracted the winemaking itself to the Symington family, already responsible for Dow, Graham, and Warre Ports, in 2006. In 2010, the Symingtons purchased Cockburn’s outright, acquiring the brand, the lodge (aka winery), the inventory, the vineyards, and Martinez, a port shipper that Showering had acquired before Cockburn. The Symingtons conducted an intensive overhaul of all of Cockburn’s viticulture and winemaking practices, with the goal of restoring Cockburn’s reputation and quality.

In addition to their Port holdings, Symington owns several brands of Madeira and Douro DOC wines. With their extensive vineyard holdings and many Port brands, the Symingtons are often described as ruling over a “Port empire.”

The Douro

In 2016 the Portuguese Minister for Tourism opened the new visitor center at the Cockburn’s Port Cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto. The cellars contain the most extensive collection of oak barrels in the Port trade. It is also the site of the last in-house cooperage in Portugal, where a skilled team of craftsmen carefully maintain and repair thousands of ancient casks.

Cockburn’s owns two important vineyards in the Upper Douro Valley, the world’s oldest demarcated wine region and a UNESCO-protected landscape. Both are in the rugged, remote Douro Superior, some 87 miles [140 kilometers] upriver from the city of Porto, a region with hot and dry climatic conditions. Quinta [estate] dos Canais is one of the major Douro properties, with a total area of 672 acres [272 hectares], of which close to 247 are under vine. Just five miles [eight kilometers] further upstream is the Quinta do Vale Coelho, a small 47-acre [19-hectare] property, of which two-thirds are planted to vines. Both quintas are situated on the north bank of the Douro river, and the vineyards are mostly south-facing, ideal for the ripening of  grapes.

Cockburn’s Special Reserve Port

Special Reserve was created by blending fruit from vineyards in the Douro Superior, maturing it for up to five years in oak casks, and bottling the wine ready to drink. It rapidly became the world’s best-selling Port. Its breakthrough success was evident in how other Port houses followed suit (Fronseca’s Bin 27, Warre’s Warrior, Graham’s Six Grapes, and Sandeman’s Founder’s Reserve for instance).

This dark opaque purple wine has a surprisingly delicate nose of sweet plum.  It is much more lively in the mouth, with red berry flavors, a restrained sweetness, good acidity, and just slightly bitter and peppery tannins.

Pour this wine in a wine glass at room temperature, or slightly chilled in warm weather to make it more refreshing.  It works as both an aperitif and after-dinner drink. It does not need to be decanted, is ready to drink on release, and should be consumed within four to six weeks of opening. The ABV is: 20%.

www.cockburns.com

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Graham’s Quinta Dos Malvedos 2009 Vintage Porto

Graham’s Quinta Dos Malvedos 2009 Vintage PortoIn the Douro valley of Portugal, home of true Port wines, only the finest years are declared as Vintages, the best of the best. The last declared vintage was 2017.  (Remarkably, this followed the declared 2016.  Back to back declarations are qute rare.)

However, the grapes grow every year, of course, and the foremost houses still have a high-quality product to offer even in non-decalred years. This is usually released as a single quinta [Portugese literally for farm, but understood as vineyard or estate] bottling. These wines also receive a vintage designation, rather than being used for more anonymous blended ports.

Graham’s Quinta dos Malvedos is just such a product, a ruby port expressing Graham’s finest efforts of 2009. This wine has seen two years in barrel, and although I’m sure it will age well, I suggest drinking it now. The wine is delightfully approachable, with none of the aggressive characteristics so often seen in a young Vintage Port.

The alcohol, tannins, and fruit are nicely balanced, with the palate displaying the classic port flavors of cassis and blackberries.

Enjoy this wine either as an aperitif or with dessert (blue cheese and walnuts are traditional, but chocolate mousse would be delicious as well). And, please forgo fussy liqueur glasses or port “pipes;” a white wine glass will do just fine.

https://www.grahams-port.com/wines/bottle-aged-ports/malvedos-vintage

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